You know from personal experience that your horse can read your body language, your tone of voice, your emotions. Likewise, you can pick up meaning from his signals—the position of his ears, the swish of a tail and so on. In short, we communicate with each other. But would your horse ever use those skills to ask you for help? New research from Japan indicates the answer is yes.
Research fellow Monamie Ringhofer and associate professor Shinya Yamamoto, both of the Kobe University Graduate School of Intercultural Studies, set out to provide scientific evidence of the collaborative relationship between horses and humans and the overall cognitive (or thinking) ability of equines. To do so, they created a study that would evaluate how horses interact with humans when faced with a problem the horse can’t solve. The researchers also wanted to see how that interaction might change based on the human’s knowledge of the horse’s problem.
The study included a team of student caretakers and eight horses. Testing took place in a university paddock.
In the first phase of the study, an assistant placed a bucket of carrots so it was out of the horse’s reach and hidden from the caretaker. When a caretaker entered the paddock later, unaware of the hidden bucket, the horse stood near the person, looked at him, touched and even nudged the person. This behavior lasted longer than when the experiment was conducted as a control without hiding the bucket.
In the second phase of the study, the caretaker watched the bucket of carrots being hidden. The horses engaged in similar signaling behavior. However, the signaling was significantly less than in the first scenario when the caretaker didn’t know about the carrots.
The researchers believe these results indicate that the horses were asking the humans for assistance in finding the bucket. In addition, researchers believe the horses could distinguish between— and change their behavior based on—whether or not the person knew there was a bucket of carrots around. In other words, horses appear to change their communication behavior based on a human’s knowledge of a situation— the less the person knows, the harder the horse works to explain.
The team hopes to conduct future research that looks more closely at both horse-to-horse and horse-tohuman communication. Meanwhile, their first study serves to confirm what most horse owners already know: Our horses really do “talk” to us!
Identifying the Real Lame Leg
If your horse has ever felt off and you’ve tried to determine which leg is lame, you know how hard it can be. For many people, it’s even harder if that lameness seems to stem from the hind end. New research shows there’s a solid reason for the difficulty: Sometimes what appears to be an unsound leg is a sound one that’s simply compensating for the truly lame limb.
During a three-year study, Sylvia Maliye, BSc, BVM&S, and John F. Marshall, PhD, BVMS, both of the University of Glasgow, studied 37 horses diagnosed with hind-limb lameness. Nineteen of the horses had only hind-limb lameness; 10 presented as lame in the front and hind limb on the same side; and the other eight showed lameness in a hind limb and the diagonal forelimb.
Lameness exams were conducted using both diagnostic local anesthesia (commonly known as nerve blocks) and an inertial sensor-based lameness diagnosis system. This system uses sensors placed on the horse’s head, central
pelvis and one front pastern to identify subtle asymmetries in gait, providing an objective lameness evaluation.
Researchers found that horses who had front and hind lameness on the same side improved in front-limb soundness when just the hind limb was nerve-blocked. This indicates that the horse was truly lame only in the hind limb. The stereotypical head nod indicating potential front-limb issues occurred only because the horse was attempting to off-load weight from the sore hind leg.
On the other hand, horses who exhibited lameness in a diagonal pair of legs did not show an improvement in front-limb soundness when the hind limb was blocked. This indicates that both legs were truly affected. However, a previous study by Maliye and Dr. Marshall showed that it’s also possible for only the front limb to be lame with the hind limb appearing off only because the horse isn’t using it fully, again in an effort to compensate for pain in the opposing limb.
All of this reinforces the importance of seeking professional guidance the next time your horse starts taking those funny steps.— Sushil Dulai Wenholz
Researchers have found that horses can try to communicate with humans when presented with a problem they can’t solve.
Pinpointing a lameness can be difficult, as many horses may compensate for their unsoundness by showing symptoms in a sound leg during the exam.